What does it mean to be a European? There was a Single European Act (1986) but is there a single European act? These are the types of silly questions that have crossed my mind of late. Or perhaps they are not so silly.

I have got nearer to completion of a book idea by having written a first-draft of a narrative on the period 1968-1993. Now I am thinking about how I might approach a final chapter on the post-1993 “era”, after Ireland was officially a member of the new, expanding European Union.

In doing so, my personal interest is the desire to produce a general history of Ireland. My non-personal interest is to attempt to complete a jigsaw picture that, it seems to me, hasn’t really been attempted before: reading the entire history of Ireland in the light of the history of international relations.

The amount of literature about Ireland in that context is very much greater for the period after 1993 than it is for the seventy-odd years before that. Creating a bridge to cross between the two periods should be possible, if I can synthesis some knowledge effectively. The post-1968 idea, reaffirmed post-1993, of regional trading blocs serving as a basis of a “global partnership” is a challenging subject. But I will give it my best shot.

However, websites aren’t places for academic findings, at least to my way of thinking, so my thought for a monthly blog on this non-breathable website is: “am I aware, or are YOU aware, that there is an EU National Anthem?”

Wikipedia says there is: it is the vocal bit from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, that old “ode to joy” melody, if joy can ever truly be old. The Shepherd’s Hymn is more my type of anthem: a universal republic envisioned by a son of man: “right on, Ludwig”. But if Beethoven and I, or Beethoven and “You”, met for a chat tomorrow, would we each recognise the other to be a European? I would like to think that in my case it would be: “in terms of music and humanity, yes”. Although my colossal ignorance of languages, including German, would force to me to answer with a mute silence: can you feel the absence too?

National anthems are a funny thing and an idea that can entertain my way of thought more often that is perhaps sensible. I think that is because my scholarly background, as a historian, essentially began “with the 1880s”: an era when civil servants, with pedantic Darwinian minds, reeked of tobacco smoke and never thought to give their wives, if they had any, gifts of golden watch chains.

Whether true or not, I remember being fascinated to read that the most popular of national anthems—the French—could cause some French people to curse and others to cheer upon hearing it during the 1880s, even though none of them were alive at the time when the event the song is supposed to commemorate actually happened. Why, then, did they take it so personally?

Irish journalism of the late 1880s seemed to point to a comparable phenomenon: when contemporaries heard ‘god save the king’, some felt a pride in the history of the East India Company and the possibilities of every man becoming Captain Cook’s next cartographer, whereas others immediately associated that tune with a nightmare that some incredibly dull-witted and pedantic clerk was being empowered to be the master of every man’s soul simply by scratching his fountain pen into the surface of a commercial ledger. I guess Marcel Proust could have a laugh by spending all day pondering the imponderable of human associations and impressions in such a fashion.

Clever dicks who tell us all that democracies can only be liberal and never be republican also like to point out, probably in the light of alleged east European experiences, that the former is open and plural and the latter is closed and singular, if you know what they mean.

Back in the days of smoke-reeking beards, James Bryce, a Belfast man who envisioned nations being leagued, saw the national anthem craze as something that could best be explained in terms of east European cities that the time-keeper of the world of architectural fashions had somehow neglected. That idea is still current, and I remember a Polish guy, while he was a doctor of arts and I was a not even a bachelor of the arts, telling me that if you want to understand “the East” (he was thinking in European terms here), don’t think in terms of George Smiley’s real-life predecessors or any historian’s pipes: think of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium (1995). That includes the story of how a woman in a breadline cue in an Islamic republic within the Soviet Union threw a tantrum and forgot all about her belly upon reading a news headline of how the empire she knew so well was potentially in a little bit of a military pickle. But why should it have mattered to her? It is a peculiarity of human nature, perhaps, to always define oneself in terms of other people’s stories, as if there really are “spirits of the nation” out there and not just “spirits of the soul”.

And so, what does it mean to be a European? I’m inclined to think that there isn’t really an answer to that. Political federations are convenient tools. They do not define humanity any more than any political concept can do. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Aristotle, the first political philosopher, was paid to justify a great tyrant Alexander. So a lot of what he wrote was just an exercise in pure careerism. That game is not only afoot. It still continues. In platitudes or multitudes, some people even call it “fake news”.

Do you feel an absence when you hear the EU National Anthem? The antidote for historians’ brand of absence is the discovery of a new text, which, for historians, is usually an old text that simply hasn’t been seen before. Gemma Hussey’s “Ireland today: the anatomy of a nation” (1993) is one of my latest discoveries in the world of second-hand charity shops. It really seems to have been quite good. Nations don’t have anatomies. But we all know what she meant…don’t we?

Peter Sutherland, who in terms of un-elected bankers or businessmen determining the shape of a global partnership was a bit like Ireland’s answer to George Soros, is quoted on the back of Hussey’s book saying “it’s all good”. So there’s a connection, perhaps, in the globalisation debate: if some such players also identified with the notion of national “anatomies”, the terms of the globalisation debate in the academy and in the press may frequently have been miscast. Perhaps it is not just a question of world bank(er)s determining what is to be called open and plural and liberal or closed and singular and republican after all. A national anthem can still be heard in the air, sometimes and somewhere. Is that a reason to keep on singing, or even writing? It will have to be good enough for now. May the Shepherd’s Hymn continue to guide our path.

Of perhaps less use that Hussey’s book is another recent discovery in the charity shops: a book from 1939 called China Struggles For Unity (everyone’s best-seller right now, I’m sure). It is written by a Mr Pringles and ends with a truly crispy line: “it would be a tragedy if when at last the nations of the West were ready to learn from the nations of the East, they were to find only a reflection of their own features.”

If that is food for thought, however, I still am not sure how to digest it. Somehow I doubt that foreign exchange dealers in Singapore or Hong Kong would either. If national parliaments in this corner of the globe infamously desire the last word on international agreements rather than ever becoming irrevocably bound to any treaty or by any previous parliament’s decision, the country that is most so inclined is also that which is most inclined to produce international relations literature from their purely national point of view. There is no end game in those games. I am not sure how much of a shadow or a light that should cast over my own pen. But I will try to learn to trust that I can find a better answer than Peter Sutherland did as I approach a “post-1993” era with my trustworthy, yet bankrupt, pen.